Since the end of the 1990s, Hirokazu Kore-eda has built an incredibly humanist filmography enthroned by the concept of family. His latest film, Shoplifters which was awarded the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, adds another poignant, yet never pessimistic, touch to this remarkable body of work while reminding us of his cinematic mastery.
Somewhere in Tokyo, Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky, Like Father, Like Son) and his wife Nobuyo (Sakura Andô, Love Exposure) live in poverty. While Osamu receives occasional employment and Nobuyo has a low-paying job, the family relies in large part on the grandmother's (Kirin Kiki, After the Storm) pension. As he is shoplifting for groceries with his son, Shota (Jyo Kairi, Erased), they discover Yuri (Miyu Sasaki, Samurai Gourmet), a homeless girl. Osamu takes her home, where the family observes evidence of abuse. Despite their strained finances, they informally adopt her.
Shoplifters embraces Kore-eda’s classic themes (filiation, biological links versus the ones we choose) by studying the balance of this tribe following the conscious irruption of Yuri within it. Why does Osamu and Nobuyo, already 'parents' of a family of three, decide to adopt this little girl? This primordial question is gradually overshadowed by questions about the nature of the bonds that unites the characters to each other.
Kore-eda’s body of work is a vast but precise picture of the family unit, displaying complex yet vibrating love but also pain, evident in this shoplifting family isolated from the rest of society by the walls of their little cave. At first, this narrow environment, overloaded with objects and clothes - giving the director an opportunity to prove again his love of light and textures - might look derisory (much like the family that inhabits it); however Kore-eda gives it an organic appearance. The family itself is both protective and fragile, uncomfortable and cozy.
The director enriches his story with a pleasing simplicity, in doing so dismantling recurring ideas about the 'perfect' family. Is a chosen family better equipped than a blood family? Is it more viable, and should it therefore replace established patterns which are ultimately unable to protect individuals from man’s lowest instincts? This underlying question provides the heart of the tension which inhabits each of Shoplifters’ scenes.
Kore-eda clearly lets his opinion transpire through some key scenes between the parents and their children, but also during a gorgeously photographed scene during which he magnifies the union of Osamu and Nobuyo. If their relationship might be understated at the beginning of the film, it clearly becomes the heart of the film, and as Kore-eda's story unfolds, it is the most poignantly painful aspect of his cinema that reaches the surface. The film might feel a bit too pragmatic at first but it quickly reveals itself very emotionally rewarding thanks to Kore-eda’s storytelling skills. As his productivity might sometimes have made us forget, the director is an immensely precise artist, and his accomplished narrative skills are regularly displayed - the first sequence, for instance, is a model of editing and character’s personalisation.
Finally, as always, Kore-eda pays particular attention to his characters, all of whom are fantastically interpreted by wonderful actors, including regular collaborator Kirin Kiki, here in one of her last roles before her death in September of this year. The director knows when to stay close to them, to express the liveliness of their daily life, but also at a distance, when they venture out of their cave to expose themselves.
Shoplifters is released in the UK on 23rd November 2018